Abraham Lincoln summed up his early years on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana as "the short and simple annals of the poor." But the hardships he endured there as a youth weren’t unique. Life was harsh for most frontier families in the early 1800s.

“Life on the frontier was little better than the life of an ox,” says Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame. But the Lincolns, he says, were especially poor.

Lincoln’s earliest recollections were of the Kentucky farm where he moved in 1811 with his parents, Thomas and Nancy, and sister, Sarah. She was 4. Abraham was 2. His parents had been married five years.

Young Lincoln Worked the Farm, Had Little Schooling

At Knob Creek, the Lincolns lived in a one-room cabin with a dirt floor, much like the one where Abraham was born roughly nine miles away near Hodgenville. Steep, heavily wooded hills rose on each side of the home. On the leased, 30-acre farm, Lincoln’s father planted corn and pumpkins on wide fields with rich soil.

In front of the Lincolns’ door, on the road from Louisville to Nashville, the world passed: pioneers with heavily laden wagons, peddlers, local politicians, slaves, missionaries and soldiers returning from the War of 1812.

Stern and often domineering, Thomas Lincoln put his son to work before he turned 7. Abraham filled the wood box, brought water from the creek, weeded the garden, gathered grapes for wine and jelly, picked persimmons for beer making and planted pumpkin seeds.

At the creek, where he often played with his sister, Lincoln may have nearly drowned.

While walking across a log that spanned the rain-swollen tributary, Abraham fell in, the story goes. A playmate said he used a sycamore limb to pull Lincoln from the deep, raging waters. Whether the account—widely publicized in the late 19th century—is accurate remains unknown. What’s certain is that another child’s death would have crushed the Lincolns, whose infant son Thomas died on the farm in 1812.

Eager to learn, Abraham found few opportunities for schooling in rural Kentucky; instead, he and his sister sporadically attended ABC schools—so-called “blab" schools in which students repeated their teacher’s oral lessons aloud. Usually barefoot, Lincoln walked to the one-room schoolhouse, “a little log room about 15 feet square, with a fireplace at one side.”

Lincoln’s Family Moved to Indiana in 1816

In the winter of 1816, when Abraham was 7, the Lincolns moved to a settlement at Little Pigeon Creek in southern Indiana. Because winter harvest was complete, the family lived off wild game, corn and pork bartered from settlers. “It was a wild region,” Lincoln recalled, “with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods.”

Two years later, Nancy Lincoln died in the remote wilderness—the first of Lincoln’s many family tragedies. An introspective, generous-hearted woman, Nancy apparently consumed milk tainted when cows ate poisonous white snakeroot. (Some believed the cause of death was tuberculosis.) She was 34.

After Nancy’s death, domestic duties at the family’s one-room cabin fell to 11-year-old Sarah. “[L]ittle Abe and his sister Sarah began a dreary life—indeed, one more cheerless and less inviting seldom falls to the lot of any child,” wrote William Herndon, Lincoln’s later law partner and biographer.

Through a dismal winter, the motherless children and their 19-year-old orphan cousin lived in a log cabin without a floor, largely unprotected from severe weather. In a little more than a year, however, their family circumstances changed dramatically.

Lincoln’s Stepmother Offered Love and Support

Artist Eastman Johnson's 1867 oil painting 'Boyhood of Lincoln,' depicting a young Abraham Lincoln reading by firelight
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images
Artist Eastman Johnson's 1867 oil painting 'Boyhood of Lincoln,' depicting a young Abraham Lincoln reading by firelight

Eager to re-marry, Thomas Lincoln traveled to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where he proposed to widow Sarah Bush Johnston, whom he had known since childhood. She accepted, provided Lincoln paid off her debts. 

On Dec. 2, 1819, Thomas and Sarah married and later returned to Little Pigeon Creek, accompanied by her three children: Elizabeth, 13; Matilda, 10; and John, 9. Thomas’s new wife brought along furniture (including a walnut bureau valued at $50), cooking utensils and comfortable bedding—astonishing luxuries for her new stepchildren. She also brought several books, including the Bible and Aesop’s Fables, which she gifted to Abe.

At his wife’s insistence, Thomas Lincoln installed a cabin floor and plastered cracks between logs. Instead of cornhusks, Abraham and his sister slept on a feather bed. Somehow, the blended family endured in cramped conditions.

To make him look “more human,” Lincoln’s stepmother dressed up the poorly clad Abraham.

On the farm, Lincoln became skillful with an ax. But when his father tried to teach him carpentry, Abraham balked, fueling tension between the two, according to Herndon. Sometimes the illiterate Thomas reprimanded Abraham for reading instead of doing farm chores.

But Sarah Bush Lincoln persuaded her husband to allow their son to read and study. “At first he was not easily reconciled to it,” she recalled, “but finally he too seemed willing to encourage him to a certain extent.”

Thus, stepmother bonded with stepson.

“Abe,” Sarah Bush Lincoln recalled years later, “was the best boy I ever saw.”

Lincoln Rocked by His Sister Sarah's Death

Whenever Abraham attended school, he usually was accompanied by his quick-minded, good-humored sister. “Like her brother, she could greet you kindly and put you at ease,” a classmate remembered.

Sarah and Abraham became close, a result of hardships and other shared experiences since childhood.

In 1826, Sarah married a local man named Aaron Grigsby. At the wedding, the Lincolns belted out a song composed by Abraham himself—“a tiresome doggerel full of painful rhymes.”

Less than two years later, however, she died in childbirth, only 20 years old. When Abraham received the news, wrote biographer Herndon, he sobbed. 

In 1830, 21-year-old Abraham was on the move again, west to Illinois. There he would take a flatboat down the Mississippi, run a general store, and run for public office at the tender age of 23. His hardscrabble life on the American frontier soon became a distant memory.